Death Before the Fall?

When people ask whether there was death before the fall, they’re not all asking the same question.

Some want to know whether there was human death prior to the disobedience of our first parents. But others are asking whether there was death of any sort before the fall. Our reflection on this will be affected by whether we’re willing to learn from paleontologists who exegete God’s world or if our exegesis of God’s Word is such that we force the findings of scientists to conform to our foregone conclusions.

While the Bible seems to communicate that human death came into the world as an aberration, it also seems apparent that life on this earth had gone on a long time before the fall, with some things dying with frequency. For example, was the garden the first couple inhabited created to exist with no ecosystem of leaves dying and falling to the ground to fertilize future growth? Were the bees that pollinated the lilies created for all eternity until the fall messed things up?

Those aren’t silly questions. Many of us have tended to believe that all death came as an intruder at a certain point in history, but on closer look it seems that God himself set up a symbiosis of death and life in creation.

When we open the “beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God” (Belgic Confession, Article 2), we see abundant evidence that creatures were dying for a long time before people were even created, let alone before they fell from grace.

First Kings 5:17 tells us that “quality stone to provide a foundation of dressed stone for the temple” was taken from the hills around Jerusalem. The “quality stone” used for the foundation of Solomon’s temple was white limestone.

At the time the 80,000 stone cutters worked on the project, the limestone was solid rock—as it is now. But a close look reveals the stone is made up of billions of things that used to wiggle in the sea. Many of the seas that used to cover the earth gradually dried up, leaving an accumulated mass of dead organisms that compacted and solidified over millions of years. Some of those spineless creatures turned into the solid mass of stone that once supported Solomon’s beautiful temple.

The fossil story reveals creatures that lived a long, long time ago—and that they not only died by attrition but ate each other. There are fossils of fish more than 400 million years old, perfectly preserved with the catch of the day still in their stomachs.

If someone were to ignore the best of science and argue that dinosaurs coexisted with humans and only began to kill after the fall, we’d still have a big problem with their teeth. Were all dinosaurs gentle plant eaters before the fall? Did they suddenly grow razor sharp claws and serrated teeth to pursue their now-fallen, carnivorous appetites? What’s more plausible—to say that those creatures devolved in a very short amount of time into their vicious condition after the fall or that some of God’s early work was, by design, small-brained and big-toothed?

Proverbs 25:2 says, “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search a matter out is the glory of kings.” We glorify God when, in faith and not fear, we take a good look into God’s book of creation.

For Discussion
  1. Does Genesis teach that there was no death of any kind before Adam and Eve’s fall into sin or only that there was no death of humans before the fall? Does it matter? Why/why not?
  2. Do you agree with Tidd that “it seems that God himself set up a symbiosis of death and life in creation”?
  3. What evidence is there from nature that there was death before the fall? Do you find that evidence convincing?
  4. Tidd argues that limestone was formed millions of years ago from the remains of dead sea creatures. Couldn’t God have created limestone “from scratch” as well?
  5. Tidd concludes “We glorify God when, in faith and not fear, we take a good look into his book of creation.” Do you agree with that? Share your reasons.
  6. Does this issue affect our lives in any way or is this just a theoretical exercise? What kinds of implications might all this have on our faith and our worship? On the way we interpret Scripture? On the way we evaluate the results of science?

About the Author

Rev. Mark Tidd is an urban missionary in his 97-percent unchurched Denver neighborhood. He recently left Crestview CRC in Boulder, Colo., after serving there almost 15 years.